Critical Concepts

Dramatic Monologue


Let's start with an example.  Here is a poem by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), published in 1902.  This was the last year of the Second Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), in which the British government, in a military action noted for its brutality, struggled to put down a rebellion by the "Boers," Dutch-speaking peasants whose ancestors had settled there many generations before.  To start with, notice that the "he" of the title points to the same person as the "I" of the lines that follow

The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin.
 
 
nipperkin:  beer glass (for "taking a nip")
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him, as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
 
I shot him dead because --
Because he was my foe,
Just so:  my foe of course he was,
That's clear enough; although,
 
He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand-like -- just as I --
Was out of work -- had sold his traps --
no other reason why.
 
traps:  trappings, belongings, personal effects
Yes, quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.
quaint:  strange, odd
 
 
half-a-crown:  an English coin worth 5 shillings

This poem is dramatic, in that in it we are presented with a character addressing another character, as in a play or drama.  (The addressee can be plural, multiple, since more than one character present in the scene.  But in this case we fairly naturally slip into supposing that the speaker is talking to just one person.) 

Note that the term "dramatic" as incorporated in the term dramatic monologue has nothing to do with "dramatic" in the sense of "sensational" or even "emphatic" or "obvious" — as when the newscasters breathlessly announce some "dramatic events" in London or wherever.  A dramatic monologue, whether on stage or in a poem or story, can perfectly be quite unassuming or subtle.  It need only be interesting.  (The kinds of interest it can offer are discussed later on in this article.) 

It is a monologue, though, in that we never directly see or here the other individual or individuals present for the speaker, as we ordinarily do in the theatre, where we are presented with dialogues enacted by actors.  The fact that the poem is a monologue sometimes tempts us to forget that the "I" of the poem is a character created by the author -- not the voice of the author himself or herself.  We call this ventriloquized character a persona, a term that reminds us that it is not a real person but an imaginary construction, a fiction.

Often, writers just expect readers to be sophisticated enough to know in advance that an "I" isn't the writer unless the poem provides definite clues that it is.  But in the present poem, Hardy crafts a title -- "The Man He Killed" -- that serves to put the reader on explicit notice not to confuse his speaker with himself.  The third-person "He" of the title and the first-person "I" of the body of the poem refer to the same personage.  The title thus positions the author as distinct from the speaker.

Once we have conceived the voice of the poem as a persona distinct from the author, we can then reintroduce the question of how closely the persona approximates the person who is the author or (what is not exactly the same thing) how closely the author invites us to identify the persona with him or her.  (These questions we cannot even open if we just begin by assuming that a monologic "I" is always autobiographical.)  The poet Shelley probably does cast himself in the role of the speaker of his poem "Ode to the West Wind" -- though even here we need to be aware that poets, like the rest of us, often put forward to the public a picture of ourselves that is more like what we would want to be thought of than reflective of who we really are.  At the very least, of course, we need to keep in mind that even an autobiographical representation that is "true as far as it goes" cannot hope to capture everything about the actual person whom it presents a facet of.  This is another reason why it is useful to restrict ourselves to referring to the speaker as "the speaker" or "the persona" rather than (say) "Shelley" or "the author."  Note that often we will put the presented character -- "Shelley" -- in scare-quotes (meaning "that which Shelley is putting himself forward as"), while reserving the straightforward name -- Shelley -- to refer unequivocally to the poet behind the poem.

If we have someone talking to someone else, then -- just as in a play -- there is also some situation, in which this speaker and this addressee have encountered each other.  Part of the art of composing a dramatic monologue is to work in features that cue the reader about what the situation is that she is to imagine.  If done well, these features will reside in the speaker's remarks unobtrusively, as part of what he would plausibly say or do in that sort of situation.  The reader's job, correspondingly, is to pick up on these cues and appropriately imagine the larger situation within which the speaker's talk is unfolding.  Sometimes the situation we are called on to imagine is quite definite and particular; other times it can be rather general and schematic.

In "The Man He Killed," there's nothing in the way of direct specifics of place to go on, but the musing and reflective tone of the speaker in the last three stanzas suggests that we must be in some place where the two people involved are relaxed.  And, after we have let the poem run through us several times it will probably occur to us that the richness of the speaker's thoughts might be intensified if we decide to imagine him and his listener as sharing a drink or two in a tavern where they've happened to find themselves standing or sitting next to each other at the bar, have struck up a get-to-know-you sort of conversation, have gotten to talking about the speaker's stint in the military, and that this stretch of reminiscence has come forth out of one of the two.  This possibility is enriching, namely, because the speaker would be saying that the person he killed could just as well be the person he's talking to, sharing a beer (which either one may have undertaken to pick up the tab for the other) -- just as it might have been that either one of them might have ended up being shot by someone essentially like either one.

There's also not a whole lot of specific information we can gather about the addressee, although if we are aware of the nature of the class system in Britain at the time the poem was published (and if we suppose -- something the poem affords no details to contradict -- that the scene in which the speaking takes place is roughly contemporaneous with the moment in which it was published), it will occur to us that the sort of confidence that the speaker is making with his hearer is something that he would be unlikely to risk with a person outside that social class.  And since the speaker muses about he person whom he shot as a person whom he might well have had a lot in common with, and imagines this person as one who ended up in the army only because he had fallen on such economic hard times as to have been constrained to enlist in order to secure the basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter, we infer that he himself is probably of this station in life, had suffered hard times, and joined the infantry at a last resort, only in order to survive.  If, then, the "you" of the poem is the kind of fellow this sort of person would confide in, we can figure he's someone from pretty much the same social circumstances.

So:  another task, in reading a dramatic monologue, is to infer what this unspeaking "you" is like, deducing what his social identity and his behavior must be from what we observe the speaker himself saying and doing.  In many such poems, we can detect, what some of the addressee's reactions must be from what we realize are the speaker's reactions in turn to these. 

In the present poem, about all we can say is that the speaker is getting a respectful and sympathetic hearing -- an attentive look, perhaps a nodding head.  But after all:  supposing this does make a difference.  What if the respondent were reacting with stern moralistic disapproval?  We'd have a completely different poem -- one that, on this text, we have no particular reason to think we are confronted with here. 

What the addressee in a dramatic monologue may be thinking but not betraying, of course, is much more open to speculation, and one of the pleasures of reading dramatic monologues is to imagine how different concrete personalities, addressed this way, in this time and place and social situation, might react.  In general we are always invited to construct for ourselves the thinking and feeling -- expressed and held back from the addressee -- that the speaker is undergoing in the course of the encounter.  Often we are invited to imaginatively take on the addressee's identity as we listen to the speaker, and to imagine how this personage is experiencing the transaction of which he or she is the silent partner.  With credulity?  with amused detachment?  with overt displeasure?  with silent contempt?  with guilt for the role that he or she is constrained to play in this sordid affair?  Some of these we probably feel are definitely out of place in the case of "The Man He Killed."  (But how about in one of the most famous dramatic monologues of all -- Browning's "My Last Duchess"?) 

In the present poem, we may end up concluding we have no particular warrant for supposing that the listener is holding back anything that he is feeling.  We may take him, that is, to be feeling simply what he's probably giving himself out to feel:  compassion, sorrow, and a shared spooky sense of how individuals may be imbedded in mysterious trajectories of fate or (weirdly the opposite) precariously at the mercy of arbitrary chance.

At the same time, we have to imagine ourselves outside both speakers, observing the scene and the action that transpires between them, as we do at the theatre, or as if we happened to be secret witnesses of their encounter.  Our own judgments of what is going on will never correspond exactly with those of the speaker or listener.  Often the piece will be set in a time or place more or less distant from ourselves.  Even if it the setting happens to be familiar in respect of social milieu, we may bring to the scene radically different values from those of the characters.  And even when we find the speaker articulating our own thoughts and feelings, the fact that, as readers, we are afforded a detachment from the situation that the characters themselves would not plausibly enjoy in the moment presented for our inspection can make a big difference.  Some of the most uncanny dramatic monologues confront us with what might be our very own voice, which nevertheless carries with it an aura of strangeness, precisely because we are hearing it from outside, as momentarily impartial observers.  The effect can be not unlike what we experience when we hear ourselves in a tape recording and look up with surprise to discover that no one else in the room finds anything odd-sounding about what we just heard, because that's the way we always sound -- to others.  This kind of "objectification" of our typical behavior can be most sobering, especially when (as in the act of reading) we have the leisure to muse upon implications that ordinarily are submerged or too evanescent to strike us when we ourselves are passionately engaged in our pressing concerns.

In the present case, we might note some interesting features of what the speaker does -- and does not -- do, in the course of his talk.  The poem turns on a separation between two situations:  the one the speaker narrates (which comes to the fore in stanza 2) and the one in which the speaker is doing the narration, and reflecting upon it, in the presence of the silent companion.  The paradox of the first situation is conveyed in the first 2 stanzas (the first conveying a reflection on it that the speaker has made between the time of the killing and the present, and which he is now bringing to the attention of his hearer).  Beginning with the third stanza, the urgencies of the present situation come to the fore.  The speaker attempts to explain, to his companion, how the event just described (stanza 2) could have happened (especially in light of the circumstances that underlie what is pointed out in stanza 1).  But this doesn't come off:  the speaker gets stuck explaining, because, he discovers, he doesn't have an explanation himself. 

I shot him dead because --
Because he was my foe,
Just so:  my foe of course he was,
That's clear enough; although,

The first line ends in a pause, as he gropes for a reason.  The second -- back-stepping to re-undertake the task (repeating "because") -- supplies the reason that comes, eventually, to mind:  he was my enemy.  In the third, he endorses this explanation, by redeclaring it twice, and still a third time in the first part of the fourth line.  We see a man trying to convince himself -- which is to say, a man who is working to overcome an unstated judgment that the explanation he has laid hold of is somehow insufficient, won't do.  The stanza comes to an end that is not an end:  it is as if the attempt to nail in the explanation by pounding it home ends not with firmly anchored conviction, but with the floor itself giving way.  The subverting second-thought "although" spills over into the fourth stanza, where the implications of the what was brought to mind in the first stanza take over and demolish the idea that the man he killed was really his foe just because the two of them found each other face to face on opposite sides of a line of infantry combat.

Now:  what are we "supposed" to do when we are puzzled by something, come up with an hypothesis to explain it, try out the hypothesis and discover it won't work?  (Note that this is the pattern of action that the poem so far dramatizes for us.  It is what the speaker enacts or does, as opposed to what he tells (i.e., narrates and describes).  The answer is:  we return to the question we were looking for an answer to, and see if we can come up with an answer that will pass muster.  Is this what happens in the final stanza?  It turns out it isn't.  What the speaker does instead is something else:

Yes, quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

The note he ends on is to draw a generalization -- war is strange -- and then to illustrate it with a capsulization of the paradox already laid out in the first and second stanzas (though this time with the facts deployed in reverse order).  Now generalization coming at the end of a meditation on a narrative constitutes a familiar pattern:  "the moral of the tale."  And since (in stanzas 3 and 4) we were watching the speaker search for some way to make sense of the war experience (stanza 2) seen in the light of initial later reflection (stanza 1), this expansive pronouncement -- "Yes, quaint and curious war is!" -- offers itself as the sum of wisdom afforded by whole process:  as the sense that was sought.  But this doesn't work:  if we look carefully at the content of the generalization in the light of the specifics of the problem, and the question that it raised -- why did I shoot a person who wasn't any different from me than you are, a person whom, given the circumstances of my own life history, I spontaneously identify with? -- we notice that the proposition "war is strange" doesn't qualify as an answer.  In effect, rather than laying to rest the curiosity crystallized in the question by satisfying it, it provides an excuse to change the subject by pretending that an understanding has been reached.  As an answer it begs the question:  it rephrases the curiosity we began with and serves it up as if it were the answer.  Instead of an insight into the speaker's history, we get a profound-sounding mystification of it -- a pseudo-answer.  The declaration, then, has the form of an answer, but on inspection, it's a kind of substitution for an answer, a deflection from an answer.

And if we keep in mind that this, too, is an action on the part of the speaker, we will find ourselves becoming curious about the possible motive or motives behind it (motives that of course we may not be obliged to attribute to the speaker as something he is aware of).  What could this be?  Why might the speaker head off away from the question instead of returning to it and doggedly pursuing it to a genuinely satisfactory conclusion?  Why not go back and fish the waters?  The answer may occur to us:  because you might catch something -- something you aren't prepared to deal with...at least not at the moment.  What might this be?  Well, what would qualify as an intellectually satisfying answer to the question, why did I shoot a person who wasn't my foe?  The short answer might be:  because we both needed to eat, we took jobs as mercenary killers and got ourselves into a situation where we might as well have been gladiators in an arena, mortally opposed, but for no good reason.  Note that, in terms of our self-respect, this a highly unsatisfying answer -- which helps to explain why the speaker might be willing to sacrifice (merely!) intellectual satisfaction regarding the puzzle he started out wanting to explore.  (Ambrose Bierce has a distressing comic fable about such conflicts,  "The Moral Principle and the Material Interest".)

But not starving is a strong reason!  And how about the affairs of our respective nations that brought armies into conflict?  Was it not these -- or what we were told of these (or at least what we were told these were) -- that explain how we came to be foes?  But were these really our desperate cause, for which we were willing to get killed and to kill?  Or were they the clashing interests of other people -- our "betters," on both sides or one -- with whom we have virtually nothing in common except that we come from the same nation?  And these interests -- isn't it our betters' pursuit of these which result in the circumstances in which we live being such that we have to enlist in the infantry in order just to have "work" -- in order not to starve?  Who is my/our foe here?  And how can this foe be fought?  How did I manage to be asleep about all this before?  Hadn't I better start wising up to how these "fates" we're driven by might actually be getting formed?  My life and his (the man I killed) have been "out of our hands"; but is that something that's necessary?  Or is the necessity only an illusion -- but necessary as an illusion, in fact, only for the world's continuing to go on as it has (translation:  to be administered by whom and for whom it has)?  Wouldn't responsibility -- and self-respect for the future -- require me to start learning to understand a whole lot of things that up to now I've never had to bother myself with, because (in agreement with everybody around me) I've never regarded them as my business?

None of this is the language of the speaker of the poem.  But none of these thoughts are in principle beyond him.  In fact, up to a point we may suspect he has, however inchoately and unconsciously "thought" some of them, else how would he have known where (on the present occasion) to stop following them, and return to safety?

And here as readers we have to beware of a temptation.  Suppose we arrive at the conclusion that the reason the speaker took the swerve he did at the end was that he "chickened out" of exploring what he somehow sensed might lie up the road, because it "had the whiff" of something that, if he got up close, was going to stick to him in a distressing way.  It's open to us at this point to congratulate ourselves on our superior insight -- on the way what we understand about the speaker's motivation is deeper than his own, and on the way we trace out these uncomfortable possible truths that he leaves unexplored.  But here we ought to pause.  Are we really more intelligent and courageous than this common fellow?  Have we had to live any extended period out of work, with no one to fall back on?  Have we ever been ordered into combat, where we had to kill or be killed?  Have we ever figured our way to the sort of uncomfortable insight that the speaker here has reached, on his own?  And if we are able to see farther, at the moment, than he is able to do, into the implications of his predicament, isn't that to an important degree because we are observers of this momentary encounter, rather than real participants in it?  Isn't that what affords us the leisure to trace out implications that the situation he is in -- with a new acquaintance -- effectively forecloses (and would foreclose for us, were we in it)?  (And besides:  each of us knows, from our own personal experience, instances where we avoided thinking something painful through that we returned to later on, when a suitable occasion presented itself, or when we ourselves were more ready to take on the task.)  Perhaps we ought to be a bit humble.

But this humility does not erase our insight.  It is rather the way in which we should "incorporate" out insight.  And note that not only our insight but our awareness of the humility in which we should hold it stems from our appreciation of the complexity in point of view a dramatic monologue holds out to the reader:  we are invited to experience the situation from the perspective of the speaker, from the perspective (so far as we can construct it) of his listener, and from a perspective independent of either of these -- one not bound by the constraints that make the particular situation of their encounter what it is, but required in fairness to take into account what those limitations are.  As the German playwright Bertolt Brecht once remarked concerning the protagonist of one of his plays:  for some purposes, it is not so important that the character in the drama before us sees as it is that we see.  Dramatic monologues can be so constructed as to enable us to see.  But it is clear that a certain active sympathetic curiosity is required if we are actually to see it!  Part of the pleasure of entering into this genre is in responding to the demands that it makes upon our imaginative intelligence.  And this pleasure is independent of whatever value we may discover lies in the insights to which we eventually, with the help of the poem or story, manage to rise.


Playing the dramatic monologue game

The games that poems or stories in this genre invite the reader to play can therefore be quite complex.  Here then are some of the basic curiosities that experienced readers will have when they notice that the piece they have in front of them is a dramatic monologue.  If the work in question is well-conceived and well-wrought, pursuing the questions raised in turn by the answers we get to these will always pay off:

What is the situation?

What is the particular social position of the speaker within that situation?  What is the particular social role of the addressee within that situation?  How do these relative social positions help define the dramatic situation and dramatic question?

The speaker of Hardy's "The Man He Killed" is a working-class man who at one time was in such desperate straights that he had to sell his tools just to eat, and was eventually reduced to joining the army to escape starvation.  He has since left military service, and may now be in decent enough economic circumstances to stand another man a beer in a pub.  (On the other hand, it may be that he's still living very close to the bone and in fact is sharing a beer with another fellow who has been good enough to buy him one.)  His addressee is evidently another fellow of roughly the same social class -- the kind of person who also might have ended up having to join the British army, not through conscription but in order just to survive, and who might therefore have ended up having to shoot -- or being shot by --  someone basically like himself, with whom he had no real quarrel. 

The speaker of Browning's "My Last Duchess" is the Renaissance Duke of Ferrara, a man so overwhelmingly insistent on his status as an Italian duke, with a thousand-year-old name, that he has been driven (as he believes)  to eliminate his first wife because, in her generous, spontaneous nature, she took as much pleasure in the company of others around her, regardless of their social status, as she did in his.  He is speaking to a particular social inferior, the highly educated servant of a nearby count who has been sent by his master  to explore the possibility of negotiating a marriage between the duke and the count's daughter.  Because the addressee is the emissary of a fellow nobleman (and one from whom he hopes to receive a generous dowry along with his daughter), the duke treats him with elaborate courtesy, literally "condescending" to walk down the staircase side-by-side with him, rather than in front of him, as reigning social protocol would normally have prescribed.

Of course, not all poems or stories present transactions between human beings.  Some prayers or petitions invite being analyzed as dramatic monologues, and in the case of many of these the addressee is some divinity or a being that has attained some sort of god-like status.

 In "Ode to the West Wind," a would-be poet ("Shelley") is addressing the West Wind.  

In Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," the speaker is petitioning some "sages standing in God's holy fire" who evidently are to be seen on the ramparts of the spiritual city of Byzantium.  In these cases it makes no sense to talk of the "social" position of the speaker with respect to that of the addressee(s).  At the same time, clearly the disparity in status between the West Wind (who has the power to do what the petitioner needs done) and "Shelley" (who wants to act in a certain fashion but, confined to his own resources, cannot) is an essential fact in defining the situation presented by the poem -- in making the situation what it is.  Similarly, the fact that the speaker in "Sailing to Byzantium" cannot simply by his own volition gain entrance to the city he wants to be a part of (translate:  achieve the spiritual condition he wants to be in) is a crucial fact about his present situation (spiritual condition).  Part of Yeats' point is that the spiritual condition the poem points to is quintessentially a product of culture (rather than a spontaneous expression of [human] nature).  Thus it can only be realized through a process of tutelage in a cultural tradition.  Given this circumstance, it is an important for the poem to stress the gulf not only between those who never aspire to this condition and those who do, but also that between those who aspire to this condition (and hence are not yet in it) and those who have achieved it, and are thus capable of (and essential to) helping others ascend to it.  It does this by dramatizing the disparity in power between the persona and the addressee.

What does the speaker want from the addressee?

Is he or she clearly aware of all of this?  In some cases the answer seems to be fairly unequivocally "yes." 

The petitioner in "Ode to the West Wind" wants this powerful spirit of nature to make him a tool in the accomplishment of its task in the world at large (blowing away that which is dead and carrying the seeds of new life to soil in which they will eventually germinate in a new season), by inspiring him to write poetry of sufficient power to destroy the oppressive political authority of dead traditions and convey to the younger generation the courage and conviction to bring into being a new age of justice and shared abundance.

The petitioner in "Sailing to Byzantium" wants the "sages standing in God's holy fire" to 

  1. "perne in a gyre" [come down to him, like a falcon descending to take its prey],
  2. "consume my heart away" [the "heart" being the element of the human constitution that ties it to the realm of nature that the speaker yearns to leave behind, because it is "sick with desire" and "tethered to a dying animal," the body], and 
  3. "gather me into the artifice of eternity"

Is this a case in which the speaker is not altogether certain what it is that he is after, and proceeds, in the course of talking to the other, to find his way?  Or does the speaker know exactly what he wants, and why?

The speaker in "The Man He Kills" is moved to share with his companion an experience that has been bothering him.  Clearly he wants a sympathetic ear, but the more we replay the poem in our mind, the more we may be inclined to sense that part of what prompts him to confide in this person, who (like him) is like the man he killed, is a need to confess and, perhaps, to seek forgiveness.  This dimension of his would not be something he would be consciously aware of, because, on the face of it, the idea that a third person could pardon one for what one did to someone else strikes one as so patently absurd that, had he entertained it, he would have been inhibited from beginning the confidence in the first place.

Closely bound up with our curiosity of what the speaker wants from the addressee is the question:  why does he want this?  

And, again, how aware is the speaker of his/her  motivation? 

And how is that particular degree of awareness a key factor in determining the precise nature of the persona's situation?

How does the speaker's assumptions concerning the addressee shape the way the speaker goes about approaching the addressee in the furtherance of this aim? 

Here are some things that might be the case in different poems or stories.  (There are indefinitely many others.)  Obviously it would be a failure of uptake on our part as readers not to register what is going on in the particular instance we're being asked to imagine!

Do we detect the speaker changing in the course of the transaction? 

If so, does this change reflect a change in values?  Or does it amount to a change of tactics in pursuit of the same strategic end?  Can we infer changes going on in the pattern of response of the hearer?

What do we think about what we witness?


Related concepts:  persona | soliloquy | lyric.


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  This page last updated 20 August 2001.